Camus Comes to Crawford
By MAUREEN DOWD
Strangely enough, we find two famous men reading Albert Camus’s “The Stranger” this summer.
One is Jean Girard, the villainous gay French race car driver hilariously played by Sacha Baron Cohen (a k a Ali G and Borat) — the sinuous rival to Will Ferrell’s stocky Ricky Bobby in “Talladega Nights.”
Girard, a jazz-loving, white-silk-scarf-wearing, America-disdaining Formula Un driver sponsored by Perrier, is so smooth he can sip macchiato from a china cup, smoke Gitanes and read “L’Etranger” behind the wheel and still lead the Nascar pack.
Frenchie contemptuously informs “cowboy” Bobby that America merely gave the world George Bush, Cheerios and the ThighMaster while France invented democracy, existentialism and the ménage à trois.
The other guy kindling to Camus is none other than the aforementioned George Bush, who read “The Stranger” in English on his Crawford vacation and, Tony Snow told me, “liked it.” Name-dropping existentialists is good for picking up girls, as Woody Allen’s schlemiels found, or getting through the clove-cigarette fog of Humanities 101. But it does seem odd that W., who once mocked NBC’s David Gregory as “intercontinental” for posing a question in French to the French president in France, would choose Camus over Grisham.
Camus is not beach reading — or brush reading. How on earth did this book make it into the hands of our proudly anti-intellectual president?
“I don’t know how ‘L’Etranger’ made it onto his list,” Mr. Snow said. “I must confess, I read ‘L’Etranger’ 25 years ago.” The rest of W.’s reading list was presidentially correct: two books on Lincoln and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Polio: An American Story,” by David Oshinsky. (Not a word by Merleau-Ponty.)
Debunking the theory that W. had a sports section or Mad magazine’s “Spy vs. Spy” tucked inside the 1946 classic of angst, Mr. Snow noted that he and the president had “a brief conversation on the origins of French existentialism, Camus and Sartre.” Pressed for more details by an astonished columnist having trouble envisioning Waco as the Left Bank, the press secretary laughed. “Confidential conversation,” he said, extending the administration’s lack of transparency to literature.
He brushed off suggestions that the supremely unself-reflective W. was going through a Carteresque malaise-in-the-gorge moment: “He doesn’t feel like an existentialist trapped in Algeria during the unpleasantness.”
It takes a while to adjust to the idea of W., who has created chaos trying to impose moral order on the globe, perusing Camus, who wrote about the eternal frustration of moral order in human affairs. What does W., the archenemy of absurdity as a view of life, kindle to in C., the apostle of absurdity as a view of life? What can W., the born-again monogamist, spark to in C., the amorous atheist? In some ways, Mr. Bush is supremely not a Camus man. Camus hated the blindness caused by ideology, and Mr. Bush wallows in it. Camus celebrated lucidity while the president keeps seeing only what he wants to see.
Mr. Bush’s life has been premised on his confidence that he will always be insulated from the consequences and the cruelties of existence, unlike Meursault. W. or his people always work to change fate, whether it’s an election or the Middle East.
If you think about it long enough, though, it begins to make a sort of wacky sense.
“The Stranger” is about the emotionally detached Meursault, who makes a lot of bad decisions and pre-emptively kills an Arab in the sand. Get it? Camus’s protagonist moves through an opaque, obscure and violent world that is indifferent to his beliefs and desires. Get it?
If there was ever a moment when this president could regard the unanticipated consequences of his actions, behold the world littered with the very opposite of what he intended for it and appreciate the gritty stoicism of the philosophy of absurdism, this is it. Iraq in civil war. Al Qaeda metastasizing and plotting. Hezbollah, Iran and Syria knitting closer, celebrating a “victory” in standing up to Israel, the U.S. and Britain, and mocking W.’s plan for a “new Middle East.” The North Koreans luxuriating in their nuclear capability. Chávez becoming the new Castro on a global scale.
Maybe next the president should pick up Camus’s other classic, “The Myth of Sisyphus.” Was there ever a national enterprise more Sisyphean than the war in Iraq?
If there was ever a confirmation of Camus’s sense of the absurdity of life, it’s that the president is reading him.